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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: That Certain Undefinable “Something”

Cathbook    I knew I was in trouble the minute that I had to define “faith.” I knew the definition I had learned when I was 11 watching Miracle on 34th Street, “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” but somehow I knew that wouldn’t fly as it pertained to the Catholic Church.

Two days ago my latest book, The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism was published and as I celebrate this accomplishment, I have had several people ask me some of my thoughts on the writing of it now that some time has passed. As I have said before – and will repeat time and time again – the fact that I was even asked to do this is proof positive that God has a sense of humor. After all, I was the one with all the questions…who was I to start offering answers?

One of the things that surprised me the most in writing this book was how little I felt I DID know…even the definitions that I had memorized fell apart under scrutiny leading me to wonder more that I care to admit if some of the things I professed to believe were nothing more than a game with words. Think I am kidding? Try defining “sacrament.” Go ahead…I’ll wait…

Chances are, you learned some variation of the same definition that I did: “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inner grace.” Wonderful, but what does it mean and how do you explain it to someone brand new to the Church if you aren’t even sure you understand it yourself? I don’t mind telling you that I  spent hours trying to pick that one apart until I felt like a dog chasing its own tail and finally called a former religion teacher to try and get her to explain it to me in plain and simple terms. “If you know of a way to do that, you tell me!” She retorted. (Somehow I wasn’t comforted.)

We eventually figured it out, and the explanation is in the book, but it wasn’t easy. Neither was writing a brief history of God. Although He  has quite an impressive list of accomplishments to his credit, God’s actual biography is more than a  little hard to track down. Don’t even get me started on that kid of His. FOUR men tried to put the life and works of Jesus in to writing  and could only agree on two things: that He was baptized by John the Baptist and was ultimately crucified by Pontius Pilate. (Yes, there are other similarities within the Gospels but I am focusing on what all four attest to.) As for the Holy Spirit…well, I admitted that this part is the hardest to grasp and offered a less-than-helpful anecdote involving St. Patrick and the shamrock. Beyond that, you’re on your own.

Heaven, Hell and all that might be in between were another fun section I battled with. While I understand the concept of Purgatory, I am one of those weird Catholics that is not sure she believes in it. (But I’ll save that saga for another post.) As for the process by which someone enters these various locations…there seem to be a lot of loopholes. I was told as a child that good people, of course, go to Heaven while bad people went to Hell. It seemed pretty cut and dry to me early on but then the questions started. Why do you have to be Baptized to go to Heaven? What if you were a baby who just died suddenly? Well of course God would look out for them. What about a mentally disturbed person who killed someone but didn’t go to confession? Would God have mercy on them? What about all of the countless stupid-but-not-too-awful things I did throughout my life? Did reconciliation really wipe those away or am I going to have to answer to a highlight reel of all my shortcomings on Judgement Day? What about Hitler? What happened to him? (This is the go-to bad guy most of us assume didn’t make the cut for Heaven and who we assume we have a better chance than for admittance.)

My point is that writing this book was HARD! Harder than anything I have ever done in my whole life. Like it or not I was forced to confront all of my cynicism, make peace with it and find a way to take everything I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain and….somehow find a way.

There were subjects I wanted to tackle, like saints and Mary, for example. I never understood what is so hard to grasp about all of that, but it is a sticking spot for some people and I really wanted to try and make sense of it all. After all, my father was Baptist, and while I am sure that he had his reservations about it, he never told me that I was wrong or that I was worshipping false idols. I really tried to step out of my comfort zone on that chapter and look at the whole thing from another point of view. Maybe if I wasn’t Catholic it would look weird to see a guy who was alive only a decade ago canonized on live TV and revered by billions of people as if he were something other than human.

But there were also subjects I wanted to avoid like the plague…one in particular that I kept successfully dodging until I could not sidestep it any longer. For weeks I felt like a slime ball for not facing it head on and at one point I wondered if I might take the cowards way out and eliminate it completely. I don’t mind telling you, if I had…it would have been my biggest regret. However, one morning last spring the perfect opportunity presented itself and thanks to one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen, God showed me how I could be “Both” true to the Church, “And” true to all that I believed in.

That’s the only hint you are getting…read the book and you’ll figure it out.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism is available wherever books are sold including:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/idiots-guides-unknown/1119619022?ean=9781615647194

 

 

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Confessions of a cynical Catholic: Why I am Catholic

Baptismal font     I don’t tell many people the true story of how I became a Catholic. It’s not that I am embarrassed by it, but it does cause people to give me a lot of strange looks. I get it. I will be the first person to admit that it is a strange tale, but it is my tale and for the first time, I am willing to come clean about it.

I am a Catholic because at the time, I couldn’t swim.

I am not a cradle Catholic. My mother converted to Catholicism when she was 21 and my father was an American Baptist. When they married, they had the logic that they vowed to expose my brother and myself to Christian principles but wanted to let us choose our own “religion” when we felt the time was right. However, when they enrolled us in a Catholic school, they had to know that there was a possibility that this decision could come sooner rather than later.

Now, my brother started his academic career at the local public school but then transferred to the parochial school when he was in the fourth grade. I began in the first grade when at the time, first graders prepared for first Holy Communion. None of us really and truly knew what was happening. My mother assumed that these little “gold books” had something to do with our religious education, but she didn’t think anything about it. Suddenly about a month before receiving a sacrament I technically didn’t qualify for, my teacher asked if we were all Catholic.

“What’s Catholic?” I wanted to know.

“What’s Catholic?” She repeated, like I’d lost my mind. “Haven’t you been baptized?”

“I’m not sure,” I told her. “What’s baptized?”

She gave me a confused look. “You don’t know if you have been baptized?”

“Nope,” I confirmed.

She tried again. “Well, where do you go to church?”

When I answered that I attended church in the same building that we were standing in, she seemed happy with that answer. However, a second later I added, “Of course sometimes we go to my dad’s church.”

The faculty all looked at each other like they didn’t know what to do and my teacher finally told me to go home that night and ask my mother if I had ever been baptized and more specifically, if I was Catholic. I rode home on the bus, came in through the back door and say my mother stirring spaghetti sauce. “Mom, am I Catholic?” I asked the minute I walked in.

“No, and who told you that you were?” She asked.

I shrugged. “Well no one…but we’re getting ready for First Communion in a few weeks and apparently I have to be or I can’t do it.”

“THAT’S what this has all been leading up to?” My poor mother cried. “No, you are not Catholic. No, you’ve never been baptized. Your father and I wanted to let you choose….”

That night, my mom and dad sat my sibling and I down and explained some of the differences between their two religions. To be honest, it seemed to my 6-year-old mind that they were pretty similar in what they believed and who they believed in…but the way they went about initiating new members was verrrrry different. My mother explained that in the Catholic Church a priest would pour a bit of water over my head while my father described some sadistic practice in his church in which a preacher would lead me into some pool I’d never seen before and push me under water.

“But I can’t swim!!!” I protested. “What if I drown?”

“You won’t drown,” my father countered. “It’s only for like a second.”

No part of this sounded reassuring. To complicate matters, I learned that if I became a member of the Catholic Church I would be expected to swallow a consecrated host. I couldn’t swallow an aspirin at the time and was more than a little nervous about that possibility. (My father let me that I could “chew” the cracker that they used at his church – maybe he was trying to make up the ground he’d lost in the Baptism discussion?) While I am sure that I should have based this monumental life decision on something deep and theological, I was too consumed with the possibility of my untimely demise in the water or by choking on the Body of Christ. What was a girl to do?

Very quickly my brother announced that he was going to become Catholic. My parents assured us that we did not have to make a decision right away, but because of my situation I had to know if I was going to go for it or wait so that she could tell my teacher what to do about me and first communion. I remember thinking that I didn’t know if a Catholic host was wet or dry, what it tasted like or how creepy it would feel when it melted in my mouth. Still, it seemed like the lesser of two evils. “If he’s going to be Catholic, I guess I will be too,” I declared.

A few weeks later, we gathered at the back of the church after Mass and I was welcomed into the Catholic Church feeling pretty good about my new religious life knowing that I was a child of God with my feet firmly on dry land. It wasn’t the most theological plan ever, but when I was six, it was all I had. The following month, I went up to the table of the Lord and received the Eucharist for the first time. (To my utter relief, I learned that I was allowed to chew it.) Two Sacraments of Initiation down, and one to go.

Good news though, I had better reasons for getting confirmed than I did for being Baptized. Luckily I realized that I liked being Catholic and thankfully, I didn’t have any dinner reservations that day. (Just kidding!)

 

 

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